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Fewer student tests? Pasco County Schools superintendent is trying to get rid of some

The Pasco County School District wants to cut down on student testing as soon as possible.

Superintendent Kurt Browning has convened committees of teachers and administrators to examine all exams the district currently imposes, to see where it can get rid of some.

"We are looking at what tests are required by law, which ones provide student proficiency data and what tests we provide to get teacher data," Browning said. "And we are looking at alternatives to multiple tests. Is there one test that can give us everything we need?"

He noted that several other districts have been able to streamline their testing more than Pasco has, and said his group is examining how they did it.

Where did the impetus come from? Walking through schools in May and talking to teachers and students.

"They were stressed beyond belief," Browning recalled.

They faced tests from the district, state and national curriculum organizations such as International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement. Teaching had essentially given way to testing.

"It's exacerbated by the compressed assessment schedule" that lawmakers approved two years ago, pushing all state standards exams into May, he added.

Superintendents across Florida, including Browning, asked for that change to preserve more teaching time before asking students to show what they know. Pasco School Board members long have pushed to not waste learning time on tests, too.

But the outcome didn't turn out exactly as everyone had hoped. So the time has come, Browning said, to rebalance.

The school district last attempted to reduce its testing burden about five years ago. But at the same time it cut some end-of-course exams, it also implemented new "quarterly checks."

District officials said the checks were less onerous than tests and designed simply to get a read on student progress, but many teachers disagreed. They suggested the district made no real change to testing at all.

Complaints have quieted, but the model remains.

Browning said this latest round of testing review will not be like past efforts. He expected it to be more thorough and ease the tension.

And he anticipated having results in time to affect the next school year.

"Hopefully by the end of July, we will have more information," he said.

STUDENT FEES TO RISE: Parking charges at Pasco County high schools are going up for students who drive to class.

So, too, are the costs associated with art, music and physical education courses in the schools. And for the first time, district officials have implemented a $5 fee for students who enroll in Pasco eSchool online classes.

The School Board adopted the new charges at its final meeting of June.

It did so without comment and at the recommendation of a committee of school and district leaders who contended the extra money would help cover expenses attached to the programs. The district began an annual review of fees two years ago, after not having changed them for more than a decade.

High school parking would rise from $30 a year to $40 under the plan. Middle school physical education course and locker rental fees would double to $10. Elementary school general fees would rise to $10 from $8.

District chief finance officer Olga Swinson said the goal is to help pay for items used in classes. For instance, she noted, the district does not charge students to rent musical instruments for band courses, yet it must pay for instrument upkeep and repair.

The related fee would rise $5, to $15.

At the same time, Swinson noted, "all the fees are not mandatory. They're voluntary."

The public schools are supposed to be free, and some lawsuits have found that requiring fees violates that principle. Many people still pay as a way to support the schools.

The collection rate has hovered in the 50 to 60 percent range, she said, although that has slowly improved as the district moved to an online payment option.

"We don't get 100 percent collection," Swinson said, "and we never will."

Athletic participation charges are required.

Swinson suggested the hike in parking charges isn't overwhelming, noting the annual cost is about the same amount that many venues charge for a single day. The eSchool fee helps direct money toward that school, which it had not received when students paid general fees only to their primary campus, she said.

NEW PRINCIPAL: Gulf Middle School, whose principal recently accepted a transfer to run nearby Fivay High, has a new campus leader.

Amy Riddle, most recently an assistant principal at Gulf High, has been named to take over Gulf Middle as it begins its transition to the International Baccalaureate Middle Years program. The Pasco County School Board approved the appointment last week.

Her nomination did not originally appear on the board's agenda. Superintendent Kurt Browning introduced it as a late item, saying the district should not waste three weeks until its next meeting to get someone at the helm of Gulf Middle.

In recommending Riddle for the post, assistant superintendent Marcy Hetzler-Nettles said she would be a strong fit.

"Mrs. Riddle has a wealth of experience in both middle and high school, including administrative positions in both of our IB high schools," Hetzler-Nettles wrote in a memo to the board.

She also has connections to the school, having begun her career as a music teacher there in 1993. She taught chorus at both Gulf Middle and Gulf High in 1996, before transferring to the high school a year later.

In 2010, Riddle left Gulf High to become an assistant principal at Land O' Lakes High. She held similar roles at River Ridge Middle and Gulf High before this new appointment.

Riddle could not be reached for comment. Staff and supporters cheered her selection in social media, and said they looked forward to working with her.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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